|Added 28 March 2002|
Shulinkou's last days as an intercept station were in 1977. This short story by Fred Reed colorfully presents Taipei through his eyes. Some of us might disagree to a certain extent with how he felt things were in Taipei. Yet, it really relives what we saw, and experienced. Special thanks to Ed Bohannon, a former member of the 6987th Security Group who brought this story to our attention, and suggested that we add it to the Linkou website.
The sun is setting on another fine duty station in Asia. Vietnam is long lost, the last GIs have left Thailand, and not it is Taiwan's turn to say good-bye to American forces.
Maybe there is a reason for leaving Taiwan. Just possibly, it is a good reason. Nixon signed the Shanghai Communiqué, promising the Communists on the mainland that we would leave, and we are leaving. To anyone who was stationed on the island, it will be sad never to be able to return. It was good duty.
Taiwan wasn't exciting, as Nam was. Looking back, I dimly remember that sometimes it could be boring. Much of life in Taipei - the capital, where almost everyone was stationed - was spent In endless bowling at the Headquarters Support Activity Compound. Hardly thrilling, and yet it is a pleasant memory. Single men passed countless nights running the girly bars that lined the back alleys, and sometimes they remembered it the next morning. Every young man should run Oriental bars once in his life. Taipei was a good place to do it.
Stranger Taipei's existed, although many GIs didn't know about them. In the drab workers' districts along Roosevelt Road in downtown Taipei, long-haired eccentrics lived in sweltering rooms and supported themselves by teaching English to bar girls. And, my God, the snake butchers, near the low-class brothels of Wan Hwa - the weirdest things I have seen in the East...
In the rainy season, the monsoons beat down on the tin roofs like some great drum, while children sailed boats in the gutters. It was pleasant to spend a wet afternoon sitting in the elegant Huesima Coffee Shop, high above the main street of Taipei, and watch the kids. Quiet, but nice.
My memories of Taiwan began calmly enough when I flew into the Taipei airport a few years ago. At noon the airport cab let me off in front of the Roma Hotel, a tourist hotel on Jung Shan North Road, which ran like a broad gray river through the high-priced gyp-joints of the bar district. It sliced the HSA compound in two, and curved north toward Taiwan Defense Command. The PX and theater were on the compound, visible behind the trim Chinese soldiers who guarded gates. Then Jung Shan North crossed the river and ran past the China Seas Enlisted Club. To this day cab drivers never have heard of the China Seas, but they all know the Sixty-Three.
When the traffic light in front of the compound changed - it was working that day - a buzzing, screaming cloud of badly-driven motorscooters surged forward. Late in the afternoon a Chinese policeman always came to operate the light by hand, with a switch on a telephone pole, so that servicemen could drive out of the compound. No Chinese, I quickly realized, should ever be allowed to have a motor vehicle. Maniacs all. I soon learned the sheer terror of crossing a Taipei street It is worse, much worse, than a mortar attack.
Taipei is a drab city in a valley at the far north end of Taiwan. The buildings are all square, ugly things in the Western manner. The people wore miniskirts and coats and ties when I was there. Hardly Oriental.
Except to the north. There, on a hill overlooking the Sixty-Three Club, a mass of red pillars rose to a sagging orange roof, the color of a Howard Johnson's. It was the Grand Hotel, the only big Chinese-looking building in the city.
Many GIs will remember the Grand when it was still unfinished and encrusted indelicate bamboo scaffolding, like a spider web. The rumor was that it would never be completed.
You should have seen it finished. The lobby had the feel of having survived a couple of strenuous centuries. Old, elegant, with dark marble floor and good Chinese paintings on the walls. A big gleaming barn of a place. When the mists drifted over it in the wet season, it looked like the winter palace of a visiting wizard. Airmen sometimes scraped up the money to spend a night at the Grand, just so they could say they had stayed in such a spectacular place.
Along Jung Shan North the Chinese had concentrated experts in the art of fleecing tourists. In two hours of walking I could have bought enough junk to last me for years. On the corner by the Roma Hotel, a shriveled man made bright paper snakes and dragons whip about on the sidewalk. A shifty-eyed rascal, I thought. His attitude led you to believe that his children, aging grandmother and faithful dog would starve before night if you didn't buy his gizmos.
I watched him Ignore three guys, obviously off-duty air-men, then excitedly try to make a sale to a lieutenant carrying a duffel bag. PCS men sometimes can be suckered.
Young men kept approaching me, waving their fingers strangely and trying to make me read a white card. It said they were deaf and that you should give them money. Maybe they were deaf.
Gosh, was there junk. Along the walls and fences, sidewalk vendors hung paintings on velvet of puppies with big eyes, children with big eyes, sailing junks with moons like big eyes. These had no originality because the Chinese, unlike other Orientals, have no originality. In Saigon such paintings were turned out in factories by teams of artists - one for the trees, another for the eyes. In Taipei they probably printed them.
It was hot, the air polluted, and I didn't think I was going to like Taipei. But (if I may skip ahead) It was better in the wet season. Then the streets gleamed in the endless drizzle. The peaks around the city disappeared In patches of silver fog drifting slowly across the sky. The weather was cold and chilled you to the bone.
It was a different city. The wind followed the river like an alley and, when people tried to cross the bridge, their umbrellas turned inside out. Sometimes you saw an Air Force sergeant, holding hands with a Chinese girl in white slacks, race across the bridge in a cloud of blowing hair Taipei is not attractive but it has its moments.
Fetcher was waiting for me at the apartment near Sugar Daddy Row - the cluster of expensive clubs a few blocks on the downtown side of the compound. He was wiry, small, with a big grin and dark hair like a shoebrush. Fletcher is so hillbilly the hillbillies think he's a hillbilly.
"Howdy! Gawd, you'r skinnier 'n a dawg!" he said. He really talked like that, and wore bright red and green clothes that made him look like a tossed salad.
He worked In the radio intercept station at Shu Lin Kou, in the mountains outside of Taipei, where they listened in on Mainland Chinese radio. It was all very secret, although everyone knew what the big antennas were for. (The guys who worked there swore the antennas were roosts for migrating buzzards or traps for Godzilla. They were very secretive, especially when they were drinking and afraid they would spill the beans. You'd ask, "How's it going, Jones?", and Jones would say, "Can't tell you. Now stop pumping me!")
It was a funny neighborhood for a Roanoke boy. The street was narrow and full of Chinese kids windmilling at each other with karate kicks. The young families around us sometimes smiled and said, "Knee how ma?", which means "How are you?" Every time we went around the corner, the friendly neighborhood pimp tried to sell us the same old museum-piece hookers.
In the evening the garbage man came, playing amplified Good Humor chimes so you'd know he was on the way. Only in China would they pick up garbage in an ice cream truck. And the old mama-san who followed the truck around would scurry up to snatch the beer cans from the trash. We never decided what she did with them. Every morning we heard a blood-curdling scream, as if someone riding a bike had slipped on the down-stroke. Just a kid trying to sell water-melons.
If you asked me what we did, I'd probably say, "nothing." There wasn't much to do in Taipei. Sometimes we went next door, where some guys from Taipei Air Station had a band, or thought they did. We told a lot of lies about how rough boot camp was. Mostly we sat in the living room of Fletcher's two-bedroom apartment, drank Beam and Coke, and played the hillbilliest music on earth.
In the kitchen his girlfriend, Fifi, and his girlfriend's girlfriend, Ping Pong, fried octopus and rice. The girls were about 25, almost Olympic-quality swimmers, and - well, people who think Chinese girls have stick legs and buck teeth need to have their heads examined.
Octopus is better If you don't see it being cleaned. it tastes like rubber bands. We ate in the living room with chopsticks. The girls sometimes had one drink, which was generally enough to have them walking on the tables. Then, with them wobbling back and forth, we'd go to the compound to bowl.
If boredom became serious, there was always the China Seas. It was like every other enlisted club, which is why we liked it. You could almost feel that you were back in the States. The jukebox was good, the pizza fair, and it was dark and private. A place temporarily to escape the Orient.
It was funny sometimes. Grizzled old sergeants would sit over Bud and grouse about how the Air Force just wasn't like the Old Air Force. Younger men griped about lifers. Fletcher, who was on the verge of becoming a career man, tried to complain both ways. It didn't work.
On weekends we'd rent a cabin at McCauley Beach, the U.S. military beach down the coast from Taipei. The beach was clean and white and, especially after the noise of Taipei, it was quiet. Beer was a quarter, and there was a hot dog stand. The cabins were nice, set back in the trees.
Fletcher always figured he knew how to barbecue because he was a country boy. After he burned the first pork chops, Ping Pong did the rest. We always brought a little extra meat so he could burn some.
One sunny day in June, hot as a two-dollar pistol, we were at McCauley with the girls. Every GI on Taiwan seemed to be there, drinking beer, lounging in the canvas chairs, a few playing volleyball, the usual things. Fifi was dog-paddling around in the surf while Fletcher and I attended to the more serious business of drinking beer. To one side a muscular guy was practicing karate strokes like a movie hero, and looking around to see If anybody was watching him. You've always got a turkey like that at the beach.
Then the big lunk decided to make a pass at Fifi. He was a bit beered up, Fletcher was small, and Fifi was a doll.
Next thing we knew he was chest-deep in the water and wading after her, but somehow she dog-paddled a little ahead of him. So he started dogpaddling too. Fifi, who didn't seem to know he was there, still stayed ahead of him. People were beginning to snicker. Fletcher turned pink and looked like he wanted a big stick. Then one of Muscles' friends yelled, "Git her, Bosch! Catch that girl!" Muscles swam harder. Fifi stayed just ahead of him.
By then everybody was watching and chuckling. Muscles had a stunned look on his face; and suddenly began swimming as fast as he could. Fletcher couldn't stand It any more and bawled, "Goddamit, Fifi, go faster!"
Now Fifi never made the Olympics, but she swam 200 laps a day trying. She flipped over on her stomach, cranked up to about half throttle in an effortless Australian crawl, and began pulling away at what looked to be about 20 knots.
The effect on Muscles was spectacular. He splashed so much I think he actually slowed down. When Fifi came out of the water, not even breathing hard, she couldn't understand why Fletcher and I were rolling in the sand. There were no more karate kicks.
At night we'd walk along the beach and look at the moon and all the things you're supposed to do on beaches. It doesn't sound like much, but a lot of men shipped over to stay on Taiwan.
Outside the compound, In the side streets between the Napoleon Club and the East Gate, were the bars and massage parlors - here you found the action, as far as Taipei had any action. The memories were made here, stories that will be told 30 years from now. An Oriental bar district is a strange and complicated place, where all things can happen and frequently do, at the same time. It was the playground for single GIs.
The clubs had the same names you see everywhere: Playboy, Playgirl, Penthouse, the Green Door, Rosie's. The same clubs could be found in Saigon, Hong Kong and along Phatpong Road in Bangkok. Occasionally one will disappear and another pop up in its place - same building, same furniture, but a different name. This is said to be because the police weren't properly bribed.
At three in the afternoon Fletcher and I, in search of a drink, sometimes poked our heads into these dens. Then the clubs were shadowy and empty, with maybe a few exhausted girls sleeping in the booths. They looked like people. But at night they put on their war paint and slinky dresses to become the mysterious beauties of the East - a process much aided by Western imagination. Really they were tired, neurotic girls.
It was fun to walk the district at night, except that Fletcher always sang "Old McDonald" at the top of his voice. Airmen prowled everywhere. The neon glowed and its too bright reds and blues reflected from the dresses of girls who stood in front to lure you Inside. Inside, the decor was air-conditioned Howard Johnson's, with plastic mahogany tables and vinyl upholstery, but sometimes you saw amusing things. Like a visiting senator trying to persuade a lovely young thing how important he was. You also realized quickly that the girls didn't like their work, and usually didn't much like you.
One night, like all the rest, Fletcher and I flopped down in a club. I told him I'd brain him If he didn't drop "Old McDonald." A couple of girls came over and Fletcher, as always, said, "I want to learn Chinese. Let's start with the positions."
If you think about it, it doesn't make any sense at all, but the girls knew he thought it was funny, and so they laughed. After a little chitchat to warm us up, they asked the inevitable, "I want you do me one favor - buy me one drink." Sometimes it was all the English they knew.
Meanwhile the jukebox thumped away with too much bass, playing the latest hits. You came to hate them in a week - it was "Beautiful Sunday" and "Rollin' On the River," Just like in Saigon for so long. Soft light oozed from the ceiling fixtures, and the girls' eyes compressed into black slits as they smiled. Some guy who worked with Fletcher yelled, "She loves you, Fletch!" I knew we were going to get swindled again.
Yep. "Give these ladies a drink" he said. Saigon tea, couple of bucks. The girls split it with the mama-san. That's how it went, night after night. If you were a regular it was more homey. The girls got to know you and, when the mama-san wasn't looking, the drinks got stronger. Then you could learn a lot, like what drugs kept some of the girls groggy as zombies, and how much the cops charged to ignore the girls. Prostitution was illegal except In Bei Tou, the glittering government-run red-light district in the suburbs.
Or how to make a few thousand dollars on the black market with your PX card, a little guts, and a Pacific Exchange catalog. How to erase your ration card number from liquor bought at the PX so you could sell It to the clubs - hair spray was said to do it, but, if not, mama-san would just pour the booze into a different bottle.
Then there was the Taipei of the... well, hippies isn't the right word exactly, because they weren't dirty, didn't use drugs, and didn't think they were three shades brighter than Einstein. But they had beards and faded jeans and lived in the tangled warrens of working class houses near Roosevelt and Ho Ping Roads, downtown.
A Screwy lot. There was an ex-Peace Corps fellow from the Punjab, a tiny Japanese mathematician seeing the world, a crazy Belgian intellectual who spoke Japanese because he had forgotten his native French after five years in Japan, and freelance reporters waiting for the next war. They all spoke Chinese and lived In $20-a-month rooms the size of closets.
Their Taipei was a world of soup stalls, open sewers, nights spent on the rooftops when the heat was too bad, and the landlord's children bringing their friends to see the crazy foreign devils. These curiosities often ate a 3O-cent meal in foodstalls where chow was displayed on pans and tough little workmen wolfed it down. There was fried egg and bean curd cooked a dozen ways, bean sprouts, small rubbery squid like gray vitamin pills, and a few we never did figure out.
They lived by teaching English to bargirls, not a job you'd tell your mother about. At night they squatted on the floor, because they had no chairs and probably no table, and drank Hung Low Joe. It means Red Dew Liquor, an unspeakable rice wine. You come to like it. Then they'd go out singing drunk, speaking six languages, and wander among fruit stalls and short-time hotels no tourist has ever seen. Sometimes, late on a rainy night, you saw them sitting In the island of light around a noodle stand on a deserted street, tossing down Hung Low Joe and chatting with the noodleman.
But the GI's day in Taipei may be over. The continuing withdrawal of American troops from the Pacific, in accordance with the Shanghai communiqué, has reduced U.S. strength in Taiwan to 2200. There is fear among the Chinese in Taiwan that we will pull out entirely. The last GI may be drinking his last beer at Camp McCauley before long.
The effects show on Jung Shan North Road. Clubs that once catered to servicemen now are filled with wealthy Japanese and even Chinese. The gaiety and life of the strip have lessened. More signs are in Japanese. A chapter in GI history is closing.
The saddest victims of the pullout are the girls who dated GI's. The Chinese are a puritanical bunch who seldom drink and have a depressing respect for virginity. To marry a Chinese man, a girl must have perfect posture, a good reputation, and look as if she were carved from soap. Chinese men don't want girls who have lived the comparatively wild life of GI's. Many of the girls could not go back to Chinese men, who are incredibly boring. It's rough. Most Chinese dislike Yanks, but a few will be sorry to see us go.
Somehow a place never really matters to you until you can't go there any longer. I think about the rainy nights walking past the Grand Hotel glowing in the dark, of slurping noodles late at night in the club district, or Ping Pong frying octopus. Anyone who was there will miss it..
But one place won't change when the GIs leave: the snake butchers' stalls at Wan Hwa, the brothel district for poor workers. Wan Hwa means Ten Thousand Glories. The Chinese always give flowery names to their most hideous places. GIs never came to Wan Hwa, which is too bad.
Wan Hwa has the best seafood in Taipei along its streets of flimsy buildings - limp squid hanging like pink gloves on the carts above shrimp, eels and stacks of livers and kidneys. In aquarium-fronted restaurants, solemn lobsters wave their feelers at people who soon will eat them.
Down streets so narrow you could touch both walls at once are the brothels, more horrible than the slums of Calcutta. In a hellish red-and-purple glow stand country girls, some of them sold to the madams by their parents: Great spiderish mama-sans watch them like gray lumps in the darkness as tough workers pass.
It is better not to look them in the eye: these little men do not like foreigners. Clumps of them gamble around acetylene torches, the dice making a clattering sound. The girls won't touch Americans since the men on R&R kicked them around.
Then the witch man - dirty, shriveled, sitting on a piece of filthy canvas. He cackles over a pile of bones - leg bones of a small animal, with gristle and fur still attached. A ram's skull, cut off above the eyes with horns in place, and a dried, eyeless monkey with no arms. The old man gibbers shrilly to a ring of frightened workers. The age-old China is just beneath the surface.
And the snakes. A dozen or them, deadly poisonous, hang by nooses just behind their heads. Young country boys stand around, mentally in the fifth century. The eyes of the snakes are cold and never blink. The butcher grabs a snake, carefully cuts its belly open with scissors. It twitches once, then continues staring impassively. The butcher pulls a ropy pink mass of entrails, searches for the gall bladder, squeezes it into a water glass. Then he massages the snake slowly to force the blood into the glass. A worker drinks it, thinking it is good for his body.